Umbria is sometimes called ‘the new Tuscany’ on account of its stunning landscapes, historic towns and superb architectural gems.
But for the traveller, the coolest thing about a visit to Umbria is its lack of pretension and its easy-going ambience.
You’ll hear me mention ‘authenticity’ quite a bit as I write these posts – and I make no apology for my love of landscapes and places that wear their history and hearts on their sleeves.
In a previous life, Tammy used to be a town and country planner… then she wrote music and film reviews… and a strong theme emerging from everything she ever loves, whether places, people or culture is ”the authentic’.
In terms of places, this isn’t to be confused with a desire to preserve landscapes and cultural heritage in aspic – it is about embracing what is real about people and places – and culture – through time.
Umbria is a great example of a region that has managed to preserve a continuity and cultural reference points across the centuries.
I was amazed how quiet it is and how few tourists – relatively speaking – visit its attractions.
It is only a couple of hours or less from Rome but a car is essential if you want to make the most of your trip.
Here are a few highlights of any whistle-stop tour to this beautiful region of central Italy…
Tammy’s top seven
1> Assisi – this tourist ‘honey pot’ has some quieter places amongst its numerous tourist attractions. But it’s hard not to make a bee-line for the Basilica di San Francesco which has been restored since the terrible earthquake of 1997 which badly damaged the church and frescoes – and resulted in the tragic loss of life.
I’m an atheist but this is the closest that I could ever come to a spiritual and religious experience, given the ambience of this special place.
From an art lover’s perspective it’s a jaw-dropping experience… stunning frescoes, a beautiful Italian Gothic facade, and the crypt with the tomb of St Francis.
I’ve always loved Giotto and his followers for their stunning creativity and use of colour, so this was a brilliant treat.
There are several layers of history to explore so don’t miss the self-guided trip down to two further underground treasure troves.
Down the hill from Assisi there is also the peaceful Sanctuary of San Damiano where St Francis experienced a crucial moment in his religious mission.
It’s also a sublime spot with a gorgeous cloister and chapel which reflect the authentic (that word again) feeling of an earlier age.
Also in Assisi, don’t miss the well-preserved Temple of Minerva in the Piazza del Comune. Built in the 1st Century AD this beautifully preserved building is a remarkable piece of history; once inside the church you can see the subsequent layers of history.
2> Spoleto – another amazing historic town and hillside settlement with its origins dating to the 4th Century BC.
We were slightly early for the Festival which takes places in July every year. It’s a huge deal for classical music fans and we could only imagine how spectacular it would be to watch a concert in the piazza in front of the lovely Duomo.
Don’t miss the aforementioned Duomo with sensational frescoes, the Rocca (if you can spare time for the climb or bus ride to the precipitous peak) and the Roman Theatre (also one of many festival venues).
3> Todi – another stunning hilltop town with a rich history and architectural gems.
Start at the Palazzo del Priori and head then towards the Duomo, another splendid building on the site of a Roman temple. Unfortunately, Tammy started at the bottom of the hill and wasn’t told by her partner Tony that the town has a funicular!
As a result Tammy was made to stagger up a steep hillside path from the car park by the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione on the edge of town, almost collapsing from heat exhaustion at the top.
The only good outcome was that atop the hill sits San Fortunato, another striking church, once used by Benedictine monks. The unfinished facade is stark but mixes Romanesque and Gothic styles in a weird but fascinating combination of architecture.
Sadly Tammy had to stagger back down the hill to see Bramante’s Baroque masterpiece of Santa Maria della Consolazione which was closed for Mass when she first arrived. But this magnificent piece of architecture is a ‘must-see’ although its famous fresco is so well protected and almost hidden that you can barely glimpse it.
4> Perugia – a larger town that has lost none of its charm and historic feel despite modern additions. The main piazza is the main show-stopper here with the Palazzo dei Priori, the Fontana Maggiore and the room of the Notari. You can buy a ticket that covers all Perugia’s top sights including the Palazzo and Art Gallery (the gallery has fine works but they are almost exclusively religious art – so be warned) , the Etruscan Well (an engineering miracle, apparently) and the Archaeological Museum (a good collection but dry presentation).
We arrived too early in the season for it but the Umbria Jazz Festival takes place in Perugia every July with big international names.
Top tips -take the escalators to the top of the town from the car park @ Piazzale Partigiani to the historic centre via some unusual old ruins. There are some restaurants and cafes with stunning views over the town located behind Palazzo del Mattieotti.
5> Orvieto – stunning cathedral with beautiful mosaics, an impressive medieval square and lots of wine shops selling the local Orvieto wines.
The underground Parco della Grotte cave complex is apparently worth a visit and can be booked in advance. It leaves from the Piazza del Duomo (closed Mondays, as always).
6> Lake Trasimeno – it’s well worth a trip to Italy’s fourth largest lake if you’re looking for a relaxing half day out. There are several short cruises to the quiet, small islands around the lake which run regularly in the season.
You can take a short cruise from San Feliciano or catch a boat from the main tourist town of Castiglione del Lago to these islands.
Alternatively, stroll around the lake, taking in the fishing boats and interesting wildlife.
We spotted quite a lot of birds including Little Egrets, a Hoopoe and Great Crested Grebes.
To the north of the lake, Tuoro boasts the Campo del Sole, a slightly underwhelming art installation, and archaeological trails relating to the Carthaginians.
7> Also worth a visit…
Montefalco – perched town nicknamed the “balcony of Umbria” for its views across central Umbria. The town has an interesting gateway, circular piazza and splendid frescoes in the deconsecrated church of San Francesco (now part of a small museum complex).
Bevagna – charming town with impressive fortified walls. Worth a wander – especially during the costumed fiesta in late June (not my sort of thing but the locals love dressing up in daft robes!).
Spello – another fortified town characterised by its 12-sided towers, numerous churches, a striking gateway and Roman ruins below the main town (reached by car).